They Say The Only Way To Get Rid Of Temptation Is To Give In To It, But I Had To Go Back For Seconds

This weekend we round out the rest of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s offerings, and I’ve been having way too much fun to keep up with reviewing everything I’ve seen – indeed, there are now shows I’ve seen twice that I haven’t yet reviewed. So the next batch may come out in a bit more of a hurry than I would ideally like.

That’s particularly the case for Dangerous Liaisons which surprised me by being one of the best shows on offer this year. That’s not because I didn’t expect great things from the superlative cast – led by Tom McCamus as Valmont, Seanna McKenna as Merteuil, and Sara Topham as Tourvel – but because I’m not that crazy about the play. Admittedly, I’d never seen the play staged before; I’d read the book and seen the movie. But an epistolary novel does not naturally adapt to the stage, and I was very worried that I’d be spending the evening at an extremely well-acted but overly wordy period piece.

No such worries need hinder you from rushing to see this show. First of all, the production does a magnificent job of dealing with the frequent problem of distancing in a period piece (not so much a problem in Shakespeare, who wrote timelessly, but often a problem for Restoration comedy, and for more modern pieces set in period like Amadeus or A Man For All Seasons). Both music and set are a wonderful baroque mashup: harpsichords and electric guitars, gleaming steel-tube carts and brushed steel doors joining ornate (and gigantic) ottomans and chaises, lounged on by a man in buckled shoes and hose and the body habitus of Mick Jagger. All this on a stage that has been transformed into a dark metal chess board. I felt like I was inside a music video in the absolutely best sense. (By the way, I’m the theatre-goer who was overheard referring to the “Sofia Coppola treatment” but Nestruck is right – it’s not exactly that, but something better, and I meant it as a compliment anyway).

Director Ethan McSweeny shows a sure hand in manipulating bodies around the Festival stage, especially the servants. The show opens with the stately lighting (and then inspection) of a giant chandelier that rises and hangs over the rest of the show, and at the outset the behavior of the servants generally is respectful and austere. But they get more rambunctious – and fleeter-footed – as the play progresses, to the point where, at the end, when the guillotine actually emerges, led by a few of the servants, to foretell the inevitable end of all these shenanigans, it feels not at all tacked on – we’ve all seen it coming.

And I must say, this production made me appreciate the original in a way I had not merely from reading it. The play isn’t perfect – the back-and-forth between Valmont and Merteuil gets a bit repetitive until the last couple of turns, and after an entire evening of double-entendres one does feel rather like one has had cake for appetizer, dinner and dessert. But that’s a fault in the story, honestly, and if anything I noticed it less on stage than I did in reading. And much of the depth that lies beneath the cold surface of this story came out, for me, only on seeing it with these performers. In particular, Tom McCamus’ vulpine Valmont brought home in a way that reading the book never did just what it was that was so appealing about this cad. Reading Laclos’s novel, I must admit, I found Valmont to be something of a braggart – I honestly didn’t believe his exploits, precisely because it didn’t seem to me like a man who was so intent on showing off how many conquests he’d made could possibly have actually made them. He came off as shallow and, honestly, not terribly interesting. But anyone – particularly any woman – who isn’t thrilled by McCamus’s leering slouch – well, she could probably use a visit from him.

(This seems as good a time as any for an aside about the trickiest bit in the play: Valmont’s rape of Cecile de Volanges. The text of the play makes it very clear that, from the perspective of the play, she wanted it, and only feels guilty that she didn’t resist harder, because now she’s a ruined woman. Once absolved by the Marquise de Merteuil, she takes lustily to her further education. This is, needless to say, a male fantasy, something out of Boccaccio – and, as such, it’s easier to take on the page than on the stage. Nonetheless, I’d say McCamus and Bethany Jillard do about as good a job as possible of making the whole scenario plausible. Valmont is terrifying – and determined – but not violent. Cecile is scared – but excited, too, not entirely sure what she’s scared of. Is it a good thing they made this male fantasy believable? I’ll leave that question to the moralists – suffice it to say that I wasn’t the only person in the audience on the edge of my seat with excitement, having entirely forgotten any morals I may once have had. And that’s the point of the scene, isn’t it?)

This play really belongs to the women, though, and each and every one of them was fantastic. Merteuil is a part that must have been written with Seanna McKenna in mind – and I hope she takes that as a compliment. Not only is she absolutely convincing as this woman with a heart like a steel trap, but at exactly the right point in the play she actually shows us that no, she isn’t – that the trap is but the cage for her heart, and inside, invisible to us but not to her, something red is still beating, furiously. Yanna McIntosh and Martha Henry do phenomenal work as Mme de Volanges and Mme de Rosemonde respectively – McIntosh with a couple of well-timed looks coyly revealing the truth of her long-ago history with Valmont (something he recounts to her daughter as part of his seduction), which considerably deepens a character who comes off as (I thought) a stock figure in the novel; and Henry, well, one ought at this point to expect miracles at every performance, and I got them. So much intelligence, so well-hidden, until just the moment when it must be revealed.

But the biggest revelation to me was Sara Topham as the Presidente de Tourvel. This is a very tricky role, as we come into the play considerably later than we do in the novel, after she’s already fallen for Valmont. What we witness is the progressive collapse of her defenses; she’s already in love with him, but needs to come to know that this is so, and will not cease to be so, and then must surrender to the consequences. And you can see every bit of it playing out on her face. And when she finally surrenders, weeping, we weep too – with all the joy and pain that comes of surrendering to love to someone one really oughtn’t to. Topham was highly praised for her performance last year in The Importance of Being Earnest, which I believe she will be following to New York when it comes to the Roundabout Theatre next year, but while I thought she was good I found that performance a bit artificial. In my opinion, this is her breakout year. Both as Wendy in Peter Pan and as Tourvel in Dangerous Liaisons, she reaches emotional depths that I have never seen her explore before. I am more eager than ever to see her play Isabella in Measure for Measure – a part she was born to play but that, until this season, I feared she would avoid facing. Now she’s ready. I hope they’ll consider it for 2012. (And Martha Henry, who played the part many years ago, can direct. Please.)

I don’t have room to praise everyone in the cast; fine work is done by Paul Dunn as Valmont’s valet, by Michael Therriault as the Chevalier Danceny, by Martha Farrell as a lucious and lusty Emilie, and by a host of silent servants whose changing looks, as I noted above, speak volumes.

It’s a tour de force. Go see it.